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What’s the Difference Between Dark and Light Roast Coffee?

From floral and funky to full-bodied and caramelly, there are plenty of nuances to discover with the right roast. 

Published Jan. 14, 2024.

Coffee drinkers are surrounded by options when shopping for coffee. Coffee labels that indicate various roast levels, from light (sometimes marketed as “blonde”) to dark (also marketed as “French”), crowd the shelves, and it can be overwhelming.

So what exactly are they? Here’s how to choose the roast level based on your personal drinking preference. 

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How Coffee Is Roasted

After harvesting, coffee beans are actually a slightly ashy green as opposed to the dark brown, shiny beans you buy from the store. This stage is called “green coffee.” 

The coffee beans go through a quick processing stage, and then coffee companies purchase the green-colored beans in bulk to roast them in an oven-like device that evenly and gently applies heat to each individual bean. 

As high heat cooks off the moisture content in the green beans, the exteriors of the beans start to harden to a point that they’ll pop, a phenomenon described as “first crack.” After the first crack, coffee beans continue to get roasted until the desired doneness. 


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What Is “Light Roast” Coffee?

As the name suggests, light roast coffee doesn’t spend much time in the roaster after the first crack, which means the beans still contain a significant amount of moisture on the inside. The goal of short roasting is to maintain the nuanced, fruity flavors of the coffee itself, rather than having smoky, roasty notes interfering and overpowering those flavors. 

Depending on the varietal and climate of growth, light roast coffee typically leans into the fruity and juicy category with common notes of citrus, cherries, and wild berries. 

You’ll most likely find light roast coffee from single-origin coffee purveyors; because those coffees are more costly to produce, they may command a higher price than commodity coffee that doesn’t label its regions of origin. 

Recommended Brew Method: Because light roast coffee is slightly more delicate, it’s best to brew it quickly and thoroughly in order to extract the most flavors. The pour-over method is the most popular among coffee connoisseurs, followed by AeroPress and French press.

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What Is “Medium Roast” Coffee? 

Medium roast coffee spends a little more time in the roaster and is roasted at a higher temperature than light roast, becoming a bit more shiny thanks to the rich oils the beans contain. It still retains some of the fruity and bright flavors of a light roast coffee, but with more nuanced richness and complexity. You’ll typically detect notes of stone fruit, brown sugar, and chocolate in a medium roast coffee. 

You’ll find medium roast coffee at both supermarkets and specialty coffee shops, as it’s the more popular roast, thanks to its flavor drawing the best of both light and dark roasts. 

Recommended Brew Method: Medium roast coffee is the most versatile of all varieties of roasts. It’s great for most applications, such as espresso, French press, and drip coffee

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What Is “Dark Roast” Coffee?

Dark roast coffee spends the most time in the roaster, at a higher temperature than both medium and light roast coffee. It has an oily appearance and has the lowest water content because of its long roasting time. If you often grind dark roast coffee beans in your burr grinder, be sure to deep-clean it regularly because the oils can clog up your precious investment.

Some smoky and roasty flavors come through in a dark roast coffee, such as cocoa nibs, dark chocolate, and warm spices. 

Recommended Brew Method: Dark roast coffee can be oily, which makes it a perfect candidate for an espresso shot with foamy, creamy crema because the oils can help build a denser crema on top. It’s also for any coffee applications that require cutting with a dairy component, such as lattes and cappuccinos. 

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